Friday, February 28, 2014

Philosophy and why science "progresses"

James Chastek at Just Thomism:

From Van Inwagen’s critique of Colin McGinn (ht
Here are some things we understand, at least pretty well: planetary orbits, cell division, rainbows, electrical conductivity. Here are some things we don’t understand at all: conscious awareness, knowledge, free will, understanding things. That is, we are, as a species, pretty good at mathematics and science and no good at all at philosophy. Why is this?
Van Inwagen must have realized the irony in his position: we can claim to understand things but not the very understanding by which we do so. We know all sorts of things, except for the small detail that we don’t know what it means to know. This is fine as an observation of fact, but it also seems to point to the futility of trying to separate “science” from “philosophy” and claim the first is successful whereas the second is a failure. All “science” is on this account is a doctrine that grounds itself on naive, operationalist principles and which tries to explain as much as it can on this unexamined and provisional basis. We are pretty good at explaining the causes of rainbows, so long as we don’t ask what we mean by “cause” (!); we have a total theory of the universe, but are totally confused about what theories are. For that matter, our account of the “universe” cannot determine whether it is all things or not (since whatever we mean by universe appears to allow for the possibility of a multiverse). Even if we had a theory of everything, it would only be a something-or-other about something-or-other. It might be a “better” something or other than the one it replaces, and it would certainly give us more power to do stuff, but any ultimate certitude we might feel in pondering it would be an illusion we created by forgetting the naive foundations that it rests on. We think we have certitude, when all we have is the consensus of the forgetful. 
The success of science rests on forgetfulness, i.e. a group of people agrees to shelve the discussion of the basis of things and work on something else. Philosophy refuses to do this, but the cost of doing so is lack of consensus and therefore of progress.

Science "progresses" because it takes as it's task the easier stuff-- the measurement and prediction of limited aspects of the natural world. That is not to say that science is easy. Hardly. But by its nature science takes on that which is tractable.

The tougher problem raised by the question "how can we know the mass of Jupiter?" is not "what is the mass of Jupiter?" but "what is it to know?" Philosophy doesn't shirk the profound questions. The easier disciplines of philosophy-- natural philosophy for example-- calve off when they make progress with the tractable questions.

Philosophy retains the disciplines-- metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of science for example-- that are not easy, yet are themselves the basis for science.

Science progresses because it has absconded with the tractable questions. That's fine, but it's no reason to denigrate philosophical disciplines that didn't take the easy road and continue to struggle with the more profound questions.


  1. Science progresses nowhere when the circular logic of >>consensus<< stifles new ideas and divergent voices.


    1. There is consensus among physicists that Newtonian mechanics accurately describes the motion of bodies at low speeds and in weak gravitational fields.

      There is consensus among physicists that Maxwell's electrodynamics accurately describes electric and magnetic phenomena.

      There is consensus among physicists that the Standard Model of particle physics accurately describes all of the particles that have been discovered so far, from leptons, quarks and gluons to nuclei.

      You got any problem with these, JQ?


    2. Why the talk of consensus? It's always a red herring. For over a thousand years the consensus among doctors was that a balance of blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile was necessary for good health. It was wrong then, it's wrong now.

      The accuracy and predictive power of Newtonian mechanics, Maxwell's equations and the Standard Model doesn't change with consensus.


    3. Curio, there is a consensus among physicists that classical mechanics, theory of relativity, quantum electrodynamics, thermodynamics, and particle theory's standard model work well.

      There is also a consensus among physicists that string theory hasn't delivered on its promises.

      Journalists and other laymen can't make heads or tails about these without relying on the consensus view among scientists. That's neither good nor bad. It's a fact of life.

      We can look at other fields like medicine. There is a consensus among doctors that vaccines do more good than harm. Laymen can argue with that, but they can't evaluate all of the specialized info that goes into the public-health evaluations.

      So railing against the consensus is silly.


    4. Yes, it's prudent to take consensus seriously. Most of our knowledge relies on trusting our sources and teachers; one can take relying on consensus as an extension of that principle of learning.

      My point was just that consensus doesn't make truth. Believe it or not, more than a few "philosophers of science" have gone so far as to assert that, ontologically, scientific truth obeys a sort of consensus conventionalism. Scientific truth is whatever the scientific establishment says is scientific truth. Also worth noting is the fact that we live in the era of hyper specialization. It's painfully easy for researchers to develop "scientific tunnel vision". With this in mind, it's good to reflect philosophically on science in general, and try to get to those "meta" issues which Chastek and Egnor claim are harder to understand around than the specific details of science.

      And w/ regard to vaccines and medical issues, consensus is one reason among several that I believe vaccines do more good than harm. It's easy these days to read peer reviewed journals without a subscription. I trust the knowledge of my own doctor and friends who practice medicine. I received a flu vaccine this year and did not subsequently get the flu. The mechanisms by which vaccines work are obvious once you understand the principles of immunology, etc. It's not just "blind faith in consensus".


  2. As I always say: 'science' is a toy for little boys; men do philosophy ... and theology.

  3. AMEN to this thread.
    The easiest things really were done first. physics and math was done by a few people centuries ago because it was simple relative to other thing.
    Its has too much intellectual prestige.
    Biology is the truly complicated thing and why dumb ideas or failure to fix it is so common.
    We simply are always getting smarter and so slowly learning more things.
    AS people got smarter, outside biblical creationists, they discovered evolution or rejection of god in natures evidence was simply wrong.
    God's fingerprints are on nature and evolution is over almost in its present form.
    Man dIDN't figure out the hardest things first, sorry newton/Einstein, but figured out the easiest first. A humbling but true thought.
    The future will reveal more things just as it will embarrass us with the evolution legacy we are leaving our kids even with its likely soon demise.
    Science doesn't progress. Human intelligence gets more intelligent.
    However its relative.

    1. Robert,

      'Human intelligence gets more intelligent'.

      With the exception of you. Excuse, but I don't give any credence to someone who is so illiterate and who finds it so difficult to express himself coherently.

      Your first language is English, isn't it? The way you write, I suspect it isn't.

    2. I mean that there is no original intelligence in us but only accumulation after birth. So in mankind it , today, keeps increasing. The modern world is about intelligence relative to a past world.
      Intelligence to me is as the bible defines it. Wisdom, understanding, knowledge.
      We are just getting smarter. Creationism's present intellectual revolution is a sign of rising smartness. An old error is coming apart before out eyes.
      Those destroying present evolutionary biology will in the future be seen as smarter then the defenders of evolution.
      right or wrong but thats how the world scores things.
      Today conservative republicans of the 1970's and 80's are seen, including their foundational demographics, as being more intellectually better because their ideas on foreign policy and economics brought the positive changes we live in now.
      nothing fair about intelligence. Its not a roll of the dice. its about thinking and learning better relative to others.